Excerpts – 4: On the Purpose of Ethnography


Geertz proposes that the preoccupation in anthropological studies in moving from particular and local “truths” to grand theories has hinged partly on a type of existential crisis with respect to the purpose of the tradition, relative to other sciences. While other sciences are constructed in ways where such predictive power lies (in the how, in processes), social sciences, to me, seem more intent on clarifying the particular, contextualized, and situated why, in the significance and meaning of certain events – that “where an interpretation comes from does not determine where it can be impelled to go.”

Geertz cautions against reifying “culture” as “a “self-contained, ‘super-organic’, reality with forces and purposes of its own” or reducing culture to the “brute patterns of behavioural events”. Geertz instead offers culture as context in order to meaningfully describe events, when he says “anthropologists don’t study villages…; they study in villages.” In some ways, Geertz’ perspective of “thick description” has very much to do with “digging deep”, behind behavior to significance. Building thick description is not about developing explanatory power of behavior or events with the goal of prediction, but with the goal of ‘telling’ descriptions.

Geertz and Rosaldo both warn that notions of culture or ethnographic methodology is rooted neither in its predictive power– that cultures should instead be analysed in all their particulars and specificities to have substantive meaning, and that “what generaliseability [ethnography] contrives to achieve grows out of the delicacy of its distinctions, not the sweep of its abstractions.” In other words, the field hinges on studying differences between people, groups, and contexts in particular and situated ways. Rosaldo’s humorous encounter with a physicist who asked “what has ethnography discovered” reminded me of a very similar conversation with an engineering friend of mine. “It’s not about discovery – it’s not about thinking of people that way. It’s about understanding and describing. It’s about relationships we form, and are able to form with other people – the goals are different. It isn’t predictive,” I said, quite crossly. Rosaldo echoed my words, if not my exasperation; his response about the purpose of ethnography involved the idea of being able to describe in ‘telling’ ways, and becoming better at this.  Ethnography is not about “discovering people”; to me, the power of ethnography lies in how we come to understand people in relation to ourselves.

Geertz proposes that to understand culture on a meaningful, if still incomplete, level requires understanding, at a deep level, the meanings of things such that we are able to converse with people who we perceive to be “different” or “other”. Here, I took “converse” to mean more than superficial communication and simplistic mimicking. I believe Geertz to mean “thick conversation” comparable to his notion of “thick description” – to communicate, not only in basic words, but to understand and convey nuance. I feel he is calling for ethnographers to “fit in”, not in a problematic “going Native” sort of way, but in a substantive way where one develops a sort of cultural haptic sense – a “feel” for a culture, well enough to communicate in full, enriching ways. Geertz, I think, means for researchers to be able to communicate in multi-layered ways with research participants, such that our communicative abilities as researchers signals our understanding of the “what was ‘said’” – the meaning and significance behind words and actions. Américo Paredes’ devastatingly critiques anthropological accounts of Chicano culture by pointing out that “the Mexicans and Chicanos pictured in the usual ethnographies [are] somewhat unreal,” and that the accounts are often parodic due to the lack of researchers’ abilities to interpret the diversity and nuance in the culture. Paredes points out researchers’ transgressions in a systematic way – everything from mistranslations to missing double entendres or taking jokes at their literal value. The result is, to me, the thin description that Geertz warns against developing – we do not want the superficial or the literal. We want the “what was said” and as Rosaldo might add, the “what was felt”. Methods that emphasise the superficial and the literal result in what I think of as a cultural shell, composed of stereotypes, single layers, and without depth.

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